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  • Writer's picturePam

What might have been

If {fill in the blank} had not happened,

then maybe she would still be here with me.

I should have {fill in the blank},

then he would still be alive.

escape key on computer keyboard
Photo by Charles Deluvio via Unsplash

Can you relate to these “what if” and “shoulda” statements? When someone you love dies, it is natural to wonder how a small change could have affected the course of events.

Death feels nonsensical. It is almost unbearable for us mere mortals to wrap our minds around the finality of death. Can we ever really grasp what “forever” means?

Healing from grief requires us to attempt to make sense of what happened, at least enough that we can begin to accept the reality of the situation. Along the way, we rage, and deny, and stew over the unfairness of it all.

You blame yourself...

I should have insisted they consider one more round of chemotherapy.

If only I had called 911 instead of driving her to the emergency room.

You blame others...

If only that other person had not been texting while driving.

What if the doctor had ordered the scan one month earlier?

You even blame the person who died…

What if she had never tried that street drug for the first time?

If only he had mentioned the chest pains sooner.

The ever-changing thoughts swirl around in your head as you imagine all the possibilities, all the possible alternatives, that would have allowed your loved one to continue living a healthy life. Some days the thoughts are so overwhelming that you can’t focus on anything else. The thoughts swirl around your brain, distracting you from restful sleep.

The fancy term for this experience of "what might have been" is “counterfactual thinking.” But I just call it the “ol’ coulda, shoulda, woulda.” Our natural response to a tragedy is to simply wish that things had not happened the way they did.

We focus on trying to find a way to change how things played out. Our brains struggle to make sense of this traumatic situation that changed life forever.

Blame inevitably leads to guilt and regret.

If I genuinely feel I could have done something to prevent my person’s death,

then maybe the whole thing is my fault?

“If...then” statements are a slippery slope, typically steering us way off course during times of grief. Watch out for these unhelpful thoughts that hijack your brain!

It is natural to wonder how a tragedy could have been averted, but we have far less control over events than we think we do. This is bad news for those of us who identify as control freaks!

black and white keys on computer keyboard
Photo by Charles Deluvio via Unsplash

The good news is that there are exercises to help you cope with this experience. I suggest starting with this one. Warning: This might feel like a difficult thing to do at first. But with practice, it will start to take the powerful sting out of the memory, while leaving the important memories safely stored.

Exercise 1: Tell the story

  1. Write out (or record yourself speaking) the story of the day (or week before) your loved one died.

  2. Recall the story in detail, and in chronological order of how the day unfolded.

  3. Try to keep it relatively brief, so it takes about ten minutes to reread.

  4. Review this story daily for one week by reading it aloud to yourself or to someone you trust.

Exercise 2: The facts

The next step involves creating a spreadsheet with four columns labeled in this order:

  1. Date and/or time

  2. Just the facts: who, what, where

  3. Additional information about the facts, that you learned later on

  4. Counterfactual thinking: different choices/decisions/random factors that might have changed the outcome

Use your written story from Exercise 1 to complete the spreadsheet with as much detail as possible.

  • Take your time with this one, completing it in 15-20 minute sessions over the course of a few days.

  • Spend dedicated time identifying the emotions that come up with each item you list: fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, regret, worry, etc.

  • Allow the feelings to wash over you, noticing how they feel overwhelming at times, but then they start to fade away as other emotions ebb and flow.

  • After each session, reward yourself with some solid self care - take a walk, take a bath, watch a funny video - whatever helps you relax. Remember to balance "grief time" with healthy distractions, or "resting time."

With these exercises, you will begin to train your brain to see the trauma as something from the past that you cannot change now. And very likely, your actions could not have changed anything even then.

Points to keep in mind

  • Use logical thinking when you can, but recognize that the spinning thoughts are not something you can simply "think your way out of."

  • Remind yourself that you acted based on the information you had at the time.

  • Your friends and family members likely have different perceptions about what happened. Ask them for their input.

  • An infinite number of tiny details could have changed that day, with the same result occurring.

  • Accept your role in what happened, using only honesty, not guilt or wishful thinking.

  • Acknowledge the lack of control you had.

Get help

If the thoughts about the time of your loved one’s death are intruding on your daily life, you might consider speaking with a grief specialist who can customize therapy to meet your specific grief needs.

Brought to you by:

Pam Kuras, MSW, LCSW, GC-C

58 Old Roberts Rd, Benson NC 27504



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